Today marks International Workers’ Day, and many marches, actions, and activities around the world as most of the globe’s workers and families celebrate labour and fair rights for workers. (The glaring exception being, of course, the US, which observes a separate Labour Day in September rather than joining in with May Day celebrations.) Tremendous strides have been made in the field of labour rights in the last century, but in other ways, it seems like workers are stuck on a treadmill, unable to progress much further from where they were in 1913, or 1863, for that matter.
By way of illustration, a horrific story unfolded in Savar, Bangladesh last weekend as a collapsed building caught fire in the midst of a rescue effort, claiming more victims (it’s estimated that almost 400 people have died in this industrial accident already and more are likely to be added to the count over time) and capturing international headlines. If this seems like deja vu, it should: barely five months ago, a similar incident in Dhaka claimed the lives of over 100 workers when the Tazreen Fashions building burned.
In the wake of the Tazreen Fashions fire, which took place in a locked and highly unsafe building, critics warned that it was only a matter of time before another industrial accident of similar scope and scale unfolded, devastating workers and their families alike. Bangladesh is a major exporter of garments, competing with China and other nations providing a source of extremely cheap goods to primarily Western clients. As companies fight tooth and nail for savings on production, worker costs and basic factory safety are obvious casualties. The factors all add up to an easy equation: industrial accidents are likely to get more common, and worse, as companies cut corners to compete.
In this case of the Rana Plaza building, the most recent to figure in the news, the story is a sad and familiar one. The eight story building housed a number of garment factories, and was built on the kind of marshy, boggy ground that requires specialty foundations for stability. While such foundations can be engineered, they weren’t in this case, and the owner of the building added floors without permissions, making it even more unstable.
The question here wasn’t if the building was going to collapse, but when, and how many workers would be trapped when it did.
As Bangladesh’s factories multiply like mushrooms across the landscape, regulators have an increasingly difficult time inspecting them and citing them for safety violations. In an investigation, BBC reporters noted that Bangladesh was blooming with sweatshops that clearly had extremely unsafe conditions for their workers. Despite labour laws, for example, child workers crowded the floors, which presented innumerable fire hazards like tightly-packed equipment that would have made coming to work a safety gamble.
Quick, easy, repetitive tasks are performed in such facilities, and garments may later be shuttled to ‘approved’ working environments for finishing and a more respectable label. Such practices make it easy for subcontractors to radically cut costs on garment production for their Western clients, while the companies buying from them can remain in denial about the true costs that go into the garments they buy.
After the Tazreen fire, companies like Walmart claimed they used vigorous inspection systems to enforce safety standards, ensuring that their garments were manufactured in safe conditions. Yet, workers were able to present clear evidence to the contrary, showing that Walmart and related firms knew their goods were being produced in dangerous factories, and chose to keep using such suppliers anyway. With this major industrial accident of an even larger scope, even more Western companies are likely to be held accountable.
Westerners often express shock and horror when such events unfold, insisting that ‘something’ needs to be done while remaining reluctant to be the driving force behind that change. While they may complain to companies and demand safer labour practices, they don’t think about the impact that capitalism has on this dance of goods, production, and labour; safer labour practices means spending more money, which equates either to reduced profits for the company or more end costs to the consumer. Since firms aren’t willing to give up profits, consumers pay the costs for safer labour, and then they complain about the added expense.
What Western activists and consumers often ignore is the movements within nations like Bangladesh, with workers organising themselves in resistance to poor labour practices. While Westerners wring their hands over the escalating death toll from this building collapse and fire, protesters are filling the streets to demand justice, and union organisers are fighting for safer, and organised, working conditions. They’re also taking their fight internationally to ask for support in the form of solidarity, rather than dysfunctional Western interventions that do not necessarily improve conditions for workers.
The Western insistence that the solution to these issues lies in Western hands may be partially right—it is our demand for cheap disposable goods that drives these facilities—but it utterly strips workers and organisers in nations like Bangladesh of their own agency. Those who cry foul about working conditions in these regions are often unfamiliar with the workers’ movements lobbying to change those very conditions—and on International Workers’ Day, we should be remembering that workers ought to be in charge of their own destiny.
Examples are ready to hand, like Sumi Abedin, a Tazreen survivor turned activist after she faced blockades in the process of attempting to get compensation for victims and their families. Abedin notes that US retailers are the ones obstructing fair treatment and safe conditions in Bangladeshi factories:
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sumi Abedin, why are you in the United States? What do you want people in the United States to do?
SUMI ABEDIN: [translated] In my factory, I made clothes for Wal-Mart, Sean Combs, Disney, along with others. Once upon a time, we also made clothes for Gap. And I’m here to ask to them to pay the full and fair compensation to us and, in the same time, to ensure the factory fire safety in Bangladesh.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kalpona, I’d like to ask you about this compensation issue. There was a recent attempt in a meeting in Europe to create a compensation fund, and all of the major American companies that were producing there at Tazreen—Wal-Mart, Gap, Disney—all boycotted and refused to get involved in any compensation fund. Is that accurate?
KALPONA AKTER: This is totally accurate. The meeting has happened in Geneva April 15th, where four of the European brands, they participated. One of them was over phone. But all the U.S. retailers—like Wal-Mart; Sean Combs; Soffe, who was one of the sourcing companies from Tazreen; Dickies; Disney; Sears—all of them, they denied to, you know, participate in this meeting. So, in this meeting, there was a—you know, discussion was to pay the compensation to the workers. But none of the U.S. brands has been participated, it is accurate.
Her campaign is intended to shame retailers, draw attention to the worker-driven fight for safety, and hold consumers themselves accountable for their complicity in a damaging labour market. Western consumers truly committed to the cause of safer working conditions may need to prepare to be willing to pay a high price, turning away from a cheap, convenient, disposable lifestyle to one that is more sustainable; because behind every disposable garment lies a ‘disposable’ human being.
And they need to be willing to work with workers themselves to accomplish these changes, rather than considering themselves above the people they’re claiming to ‘help.’
Photo by Marshall Astor of Edith Abeyta’s installation, Transversal Garment Manifestation No. 1, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.